Saturday, 6 December 2014

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia...

I am very fortunate to have received a once in a life time trip to a normally closed-to-tourist country in the middle east called Saudi Arabia. It's host to the home of Islam in the name of Mecca, and somewhere that I would never have dreamed of visiting.

My Dad has recently taken up full time residency in the country and is benefiting from a tax free salary. Bliss some may say, but to his friends he calls it Jail-ddah. I was able to experience all of the best bits. I was only there for a mear 3 days, but I know I have to visit again.

The adventure didn't start in foreign lands though. Upon getting to Heathrow I became very aware that we were headed to the far right hand side of Terminal 5, the club, business, party, first class of airline travel end of the terminal. And low and behold, club class travel had been organised... Just stepping in to the pre-flight lounge was an experience, You are greeted by name, sat in a lounge where you can shower, drink, eat, lounge and are generally waited on hand and foot for, in our case, hours before your flight (because you turn up to the airport early when you have lounge access!)

I took it upon myself to try each and every one of the 6 scotch’s on offer in the complimentary bar, we enjoyed sky television, a buffet of hot and cold foods, cheeses, beers, a mini cinema, and a whole raft of that days newspapers, articles and niche magazines on offer. When I left to meet the plane I was stuffed and pissed!

When I got on the aircraft I was blown away even more.. The seats looked like nothing you've ever seen before. Space craft materials and design. The plane was nearly empty with my family sharing club class with 3 others. We had the hosts undivided attention and with that came unlimited and rellenteless whiskeys. I opted for the Lamb Birhiani and was amazed that that quality could come out of a microwave at 33,000 ft. I started watching the latest film release on my personal touch screen entertainment system but was too mullered to complete more than 30 minutes and feel asleep on my fully reclineable airplane bed. Shoes stowed in the special shoe drawer.

Arriving at Jeddah airport my sister, Ellie, had to don the sexiest of attire, a Saudi custom is for all women to cover themselves with a, normally black, head to toe garment called an Abaya. From what I could gather it is used for men to protect against other men from looking at their women in a lustful manner.

Driving in Jeddah is the most fascinating and at the same time terrifying thing I have ever experienced. There is all of the infrastructure, its like a normal road, all be it a 4 lane carriageway but we have those in the UK yeh? However, here a 4 lane carriageway has no rules, we witnessed a few of the following:

  • A bus doing a U-turn in a busy 4 lane, 8 way carriageway
  • One chap reversing down the 'slow' lane of the carriageway for what looked to be an indefinite distance
  • 'Dangerous diversion' signs notifying you of a dangerous diversion they have constructed across another 4 lane, 8 way carriageway.
  • People in the far left lane of the carriageway wanting to turn right at stationary traffic lights, what happens when they turn green is hilarious

Ironically you will see numerous 2 - 4 year old cars with their factory installed door bump foam stickers, windscreen protective films, internal dash plastic protectors and plastic wrapped headrests in the vague attempt to keep a car nice when it's not been cleaned since its inception and has picked up enough bumps, dents, dings and scratches to warrant an English man taking it to the scrap heap.

I'd like to describe jeddah in one, hyphentated word, Oxy-moron. The cold water comes out of the tap at 45 degrees C, if there is a queue on a roundabout drivers just drive round it the other way, there are 4 person families crammed in to the front 2 seats of a micra and there's a La Senza in a country where women have to wear a big black sheet in public. But there are plus sides. It costs my Dad £3.20 to fill the fuel tank of his car... and with that he gets two packets of tissues and a litre of drinking water. Water is literally more expensive than fuel and the local desalination plant burns the oily black stuff to make drinking water.

Dad lives on a compound. There are a number of them dotted around Jeddah and presumably the whole of Saudi. These are places of safety for western people. As you enter the 10 metre high walls of the compound by car you are slowed to a creep with concrete fortifications, everything looks scary and miliary like. There are armed guards supplied by the Saudi National Guard and on one compound we visited, a 50 calibre gun trained perminantly down the entrance road. Yet, in true Saudi custom we were subjected to the most stringent of security measures as a man walks the length of our car holding what looks to be an old CRT TV antenna empedded in to a piece of wooden dowling. Apparently this is a bomb detector and I instantly feel much much more safe!

That day was spent by a surprisingly pleasant pool complex. The compound caters for nearly every interest, offering a barbers, supermarket, bowling ally and no less than 3 swimming complexes. 

That evening saw us and a few of Dads friends piling in to a couple of taxis and making the treacherous journey to a different compound where a French guy was hosting a party. His lounge had been transformed in to a mini night club, disco lasers, smoke machine and full on pole dancing pole in the centre. A group of approximately 30 people turned up over the course of the night and my dancing got even more crazier as the music got louder... until the Tomorrowland 2013 aftermovie soundtrack came on.... BAM .... I'm up and going some! Managing to hold myself upside down on the pole with my feet on the ceiling.

I had averaged 3 hours sleep a night since leaving home and tried desperately to get some kip on the closed off Westernised beach complex but to no avail. We got some take away chicken that evening and settled down for a good nights sleep as we were booked in for a snorkeling trip in the Red Sea the next day.

6am rise and a less hectic drive to the dive centre base on the creek. We joined a couple of Dads work colleagues and an assortment of proper divers with tanks and regulators etc and sped out of the creek towards a couple of coral reefs 23km off the coast in the Red Sea on a fairly large boat. Wealthy Arabs joined us to jump and do stunts off of the boat's wake on their high powered jet ski's, I didn't realise the height some of them could get and was even scared for them when it looked like they may flip over.

Once the skipper had dropped anchor and explained where we could go in relation to the reef in front of us I was first to strip off and take the plunge from the top deck of the boat. It is roasting hot after all! 36 degrees during the day! The water was lovely, not cold, and perfectly clear. I donned my snorkel and was opened up to a completely unknown world. I'd been snorkeling before in harbours and off of beaches, but never had I seen anything like what was on this reef. 
The colours were spectacular, the coral swayed as the waves made me bob like a cork. Fish swam literally everywhere. It was incredible. I was very envious as the 6 proper divers plunged in near the boat and I saw their decent clouded by bubbles.

The day on the boat was very pleasurable. We alternated between floating in the salty sea, taking in the different sea creatures, fish and corals, to soaking up the sun on the boat, refreshments and snacks included. We had seen a school of flat nosed dolphins on the way out. The skipper turned the boat in a big circle so they could play in the wake. Dad and I were floating near the boat when a Polish guy, in Saudi to map the reefs from an aircraft at night, nonchalantly shouted that there was some Dolphins. Dad and I turned around to see the ominous sight of dorsal fins sticking out of the water a little way out from us. I've got to be honest I was a little scared, I'm a good swimmer, but not compared to a 8m long shark. My fears heightened when the fins simultaneously turned towards us and slowly descended under the water. I didn't have my goggles on and couldn't see where they had gone.

Every now and then the Dolphins would come up for air, surprising us as they circled around, one getting within reaching distance of my Dad. It was a truly spectactular experience, and one I craved more of! The fear had gone and I wanted to spend the whole day in that luke warm sea. Through out the day the Dolphins came back to the boat 3 more times. Each time I jumped back in eagerly with my video camera, trying desperately to get close enough for a good shot.

A storm was brewing in the distance, the coast guard had warned us of it when we left the creek, but the Dolphins returned just one last time. I grabbed my mask and camera, jumped in and managed this awesome shot.

It was a really incredible moment. I turned around and nearly everyone from the boat was in the water. Even the Sri Lankan skipper had shed his clothes and was in with us.

Who needs Sea World when you can see wild, bottlenosed Dolphins in their natural habitat. I listened eagerly as we sped back to avoid the storm. The divers had seen Baracuda, Manta Rays and Moray Eals. I need to get my PADI open water license!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

So what's he been up to?...

It's been a little while and there's been no new stunning coast line or moody sunset pictures from beaches or snowclad mountains.

And that's pretty simply because we have stayed put in our home town for a bit. I remember posting extaticaly about saving up £10k for our vagabonding adventure. We eventually saved up a mighty 20 grand in the end. Not a measely sum. Could have been a deposit on a property. But we've done better than that. We've lived a fantastic, varied, exciting, scary, lazy, difficult 2 years... My trouble is I don't want it to end!

New Alp Beastie
However the money has run out. We bought a new van and are in the process of converting her for an Alp living beastie, but in the process spent everything we own. So we got to work. Kerry back at the Airport and me doing absolutely anything to bring in any money, spreading my time between a print firm working at Heathrow and Gatwick airports, numerous odd jobs and delivering pizzas on a moped in Brighton.

Fortunately we have no worries about where to live whilst we build the van. This is the real point to make. We could not have changed vans if we did not have anywhere to live. Unless the new van was perfect and we could just move in, but it's not. It's an empty shell! We are very fortunate to have the use of my Dads house whilst he is working abroad.... Without this kind gesture we would not have been able to change vans.

One of the random odd jobs I managed to pick up was an alternative gig being an extra on the new Warner Brothers film Tarzan. It stars Samuel L Jackson and Alexander Skarsgard with Margot Robbie as lead female. I can't say too much as the film isn't out yet and your kind of held to an embargo, but come its 2016 release date expect a delayed blog posting! If you ever get to be an extra on a feature film, take it! A fantastic experience.

So now work carries on... van work.... work for money... but all with the desire to hit the slopes again for our 3rd season.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Tomorrowland 2014 - Quite simply amazing...

The struggle for Tomorrowland tickets started 2 years ago...

The Key to Happiness
We had just started working for our new employer in the French Alps and were midway through the season. The only wifi we had was that of a neighbouring chalet and was only accessible if you sat, with your laptop, on the balcony... The balcony that gets to -25 C at night and can get pretty chilly around 5pm, especially when you've been sat in an online ticket queue for 3 hours.

Alas, that first years attempt yielded nothing but very cold typing fingers. So this years challenge was made a lot easier with the introduction of a nice 4g connection inside our chalet. A group of us wanted to go and we make a group chat to discuss the goings on of our respective applications.

A couple of hours passed and no one had even a sniff of being anywhere near purchasing some tickets, let alone the 12 or 14 tickets needed if everyone who had shown interest were to come. Until, the joker of the pack, Alex exclaimed "I'm in guys... no shit" and the group chat went absolutely nuts.

Alex had managed to get through to the ticket purchasing options. We all thought he would only be able to buy 4 tickets, and so waited patiently in queue hoping for another person to get in. Alex then plunged the mood in to a darky abyse as he proclaimed that he was unable to buy the 4 tickets as the single tickets had run out. He could order separate day tickets but not tickets for the whole weekend. Until, with the click of a mouse, he found the holy grail of ticket ordering options.... The Friendship Camping Tickets... A no holes barred weekend Madness ticket for not 1 person or 4 people... but 10 people!

A right palarva then ensued as Alex's touchpad mouse died, rendering his browser navigation down to tentative Tab presses trying not to close the page or navigate away from the holy grail. Matt dropped off a spare keyboard and Kerry and I were in a position to purchase all 10 at once... and... after an evening on tenderhooks, Alex posted a screengrab of the receipt that said we were now in possession of 10 Full Madness Tomorrwland Tickets ....   HALLELUJAH!

We had a few months to hype our selves up, the group chat didn't stop all summer. That gentle 'Ding!' from your phone just someone letting you know you're on your way to the best party on earth, until one Thursday morning and we were all heading to the Eurotunnel with destination Tomorrowland engraved in to our BRAINS! We drove in to Boom, Belgium, where Tomorrowland is held annually, with a few small detours and a questionably safe 6 lane traverse manouver that we prayed we would never have to do, especially after a 5 day Dance festival!

Heading in to the festival was an experience in itself. Before actually getting here we could only dream of what we may face. Piecing together ideas from Tomorrowland's infamous aftermovies on youtube. And it didn't disappoint. What we didn't realise was that our Friendship camping was essentially a sort of VIP camping. Each friendship group was given a gazebo adorned with fantastically coloured mushrooms and candy sticks and all things nice enclosed in a picket fenced section of the camping field. Even when we have been VIP at Global Gathering it hasn't been this good. Heck, even our entry tickets were electronic bracelets with a heart button on to connect you via Facebook with fellow ravers when you simultaneously press them. To be honest I was actually pretty blown away already... and the music hadn't even started yet!

Kerry with her new billed friend

The festival doesn't officially start until Friday at noon, however us lucky campers residing in Dreamville, the Tomorrowland campsite, for the weekend, were treated to The Gathering. A 40,000 strong rave up IN the campsite itself. The main stage from 2011 had been re-assembled in the middle of the campsite, just for one night... one Night! We'd all solemnly declared to stay off the giggle sauce (or atleast practice moderation) for the first night... to which I went headlong in the other direction! How can you not want to have fun in a place that gives you a champagne reception and the daily Tomorrowland newspaper to enjoy?!

Amazing Themeing
I was lulled awake the next day by the campsite DJ rolling some morning tunes, grabbing a very pleasant shower and making myself beautiful again. Not something I've done at a festival before. I usually just condemn myself to a weekend of grime... not Tomorrowland. Everything and everyone looked so beautiful. That was the stark difference between Tomorrowland and other festivals we'd been to. The themeing. Everywhere you look theres a Madhatter looking bloke or giant frog, trees have woollen jumpers so you can get up close and cuddle, lakes are transformed with jumping spouts of water and flame throwing lillypads. Imagine the feeling of crawling in to the dark muddy rabbit hole and emerging the otherside in Wonderland... well this was Tomorrowland. And there's a universe on the otherside of that rabbit hole!

It does feel like the whole Universe is here. Whilst English is widely spoken, we were definitely in the minority, making it a vastly different experience. I had a physical conversation with some one (not like that) I mean, neither of us could understand the other, except for our actions and body language. I think he wanted a drink, or a lollipop... or a woodwind musical instrument... any way he was nice.

Main Stage
One particularly moving sight was that of an Israeli and Palestinian flag being flown side-by-side, despite the recent resurgence in violent over the Gaza strip. Small things like that really moved me. It showed that deep down, no matter what colour, belief system, ideology or brightly coloured snapback you were wearing, we can all have a ruddy good party!

My favourite set of the weekend was on the Carl Cox stage, late at night when Nero played their set. The music at Tomorrowland, on the whole, wasn't what I was expecting, but Nero blew me away with tunes blaring at 5 bigillion megaWatts including some of the colaborations they've made with the London Symphonic Orchestra.

Throughout the long weekend we ambled between over 10 different, yet equally amazing stages. Each encompassing it's own genre of music. I'd say that the music was very much influenced by the EDM movement that's sweeping over from the States currently. No I don't meant that every act was classed as 'Electronic Dance Music' because... well it was! But using EDM in the context of this doublette build up, minimalistic drop Americana that has definitely grown more prominent this year. It's not that I don't like it. I can get my groove down to almost anything! But it's nice to find that stage where the music just clicks and your body kicks off.

There scale of the place is not to be underestimated. Its freaking huge! Set in a recreational area full of open pieces of water. All interconnected with little bridges and small islands with parties erupting out of. The 'Rave Cave' was pumping out bass like those questionable clubs with stalactites of human sweat clinging to the ceiling. One stage had a sort of birdcage-matchstick type construction going over the audience. There was a slope down one side and I can remember having a very surreal experience similar to Dr Gonzo's dismount from the carousel in Bazooko's circus.

The Piece de resistance of Tomorrowland is the mainstage. Every year the production team put in a huge effort to come up with the most bizarre, visually stimulating and wonderful scene. What I didn't realise from the youtube aftermovies is that the main stage is nestled in a massive natural amphitheatre with sides rising approximately 6 to 8 metres above the theatres floor. When full the main stage was a sight to behold in itself. I guess over 140,000 people congregated on the sloping banks and bouncing dance floor when at it's maximum capacity.
My friends made the weekend too. We had such a good set of people, some I'd known for 18 years and one I'd only just met at the Eurotunnel car park! As usual at a dance music festival, everyone looked out for one another, strangers catched you if you fell and peace and love was everywhere. Why can't life be a Festival?!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Le Mans 24 Heures 2014...

Well ... what a weekend...!

Everyone knows what the Le Mans 24 hour I'm not going to reel off facts, figures and other easily obtainable snipbits of information here. Google it... This is an account of what I got up to.

My friends departed for the ferry early doors on Thursday, hoping to get there sometime in the afternoon.  I was let off work at 8pm, quickly jumping on my bike and hooning the 300 miles to Le Mans, and the campsite, like an expectant father to be who's just got the message 'it' is coming...

When I got to Le Mans around midnight the roads were grid locked. It took me 45 minutes just to navigate to our campsite, only trouble being I didn't know which colour sign our campsite had been designated. The majority of the 24 hour track is made up of normally public roads... roads that my new satnav app wanted me to take.

There was a particular road that looked a 50 meter jaunt to another road, but it was barricaded off with some 5 foot heras fencing except for a little gap that the workmen had just made, so I shot through and up to the end of the road. That's when I realised I was now sat smack bang in the middle of a huge race track straight. Parked up every 20 meters or so were flat bed trucks and mobile work lights illuminating a huge army of orange clad French dudes setting up armco barriers. One passing flat bed had an oompaloompa on the back just pointing at the barriered entry I'd just blatantly ridden through!

I eventually got to the roundabout with a drunken Ross standing on it waving his torch beam in every motorcyclists eyes. The campsite was just as much a dilemma, with Alex threatening to violently show me how many beers he'd drank earlier that day. So after a few cold ones myself we all retired by about 1:30am.

Alex, myself and Ross partying hard
After a late breakfast that morphed in to Lunch we headed to a small village on the outside of the track called Arnage, 2km down the road. It lends its name to a section of the track, and has some nice bars, restaurants and a notorious section of the high street known to host all manner of tomfoolery with fans and their cars. It was also convenient that there was a bar showing the Netherlands vs Spain game in the World Cup Competition. For some reason though the morning beers had been flowing too well and we ended up walking back to the campsite for a reason I can't remember. Getting hacked off with walking the same unpathed road some of us ended up hitchhiking with relative success.

The Dutch game was a belter by all accounts. Netherlands wooping their arch rivals Spain 5 - 1. I say by all accounts because I soon got a bit bored and instead took my beer outside to egg on the cars and bikes on the road outside the bar. It's such a mad environment to be in. There's motorheads everywhere and all they want to do is spin up their wheels or get their engines to hit the rev limiter, yet the police seem to tolerate it. Its brilliant!

After another, hop skip and a jump back to the campsite a few of us went out hunting for more tyre smoke, getting to the front entrance of the campsite and being met by a huge crowd of people all encouraging the passing cars to get those rear tyres spinning like a yoyo. We got fully involved and ended up pushing the older cars back and spraying water on to the roundabout road so they would lose traction. There was a diverse number of vehicles too, with sports cars, motorbikes, old bangers, mums out in their zafira's and one notable 7.5 tonne truck that I'm glad I didn't fall under when trying to hold it back.

It's not all about the cars... they just happen to be there!
This is all at around 11 or 12 o'clock at a vague guess. It was dark anyway. And then suddenly out came a red flare that lit up the crowd as everyone cheered and engines roared. I'd probably had waaaay too much to drink at this point and before I knew it I was stood in the middle of the road holding aforementioned flare aloft screaming "WHO ARE YA!" at the top of my voice, turning around and thrusting the flare up in the air. For some reason the entire crown seemed to instantly quiet, just leaving the mouthy Englishman screaming something at the top of his voice while waving a flare about. Phil later said they probably didn't know what to expect from me next. Until I casually put the flare back on the floor and walked back to where my mates were standing.

As with any crowd there was a few who wanted to spoil the fun. It was when glass bottles were broken on the makeshift burnout pad that we all collaboratively decided to leave. The cars that were entering the area had no idea there was glass underfoot and would then try and spin up their wheels to impress the crowd, presumably causing some damage and potentially 4 flat tyres. We couldn't take on everyone and get through to them they were spoiling the fun, so chose to abstain and leave.

Not that leaving was a particularly bad idea. We stumbled across a very noisey and lively party hosted by some German or Dutch blokes. There was a good gathering of about 40 - 50 people all mooching about and dancing to the music. We all got our groove on to classics mixed with the austin powers theme tune!

Saturday saw us all taking the tiny land train up to the start straight for a spot of hat shopping as everyone was getting burnt scalps. I woke up to a badly burnt hand from the previous nights shenanigans. Meeting the Michelin man was a pivotal point in my life. As with the French version of Asterix, I tried my best to explain that I couldn't speak French... in French. He didn't care anyway, he just wanted a cuddle.

We continued North a bit and decided to plot near a chicane for the start and followed the race quite religiously for about an hour and a half, listening intently on the radios to the commentary. There was even a little mention about the Dutch rave in the campsite! But as the afternoon wore on so did the consumption of beer and interest soon faded in the race and became more about going to the toilet every 5 minutes, chatting with people from various Scandinavian countries and relishing in the brief rain shower that cut through the otherwise sweltering weekend for 20 minutes.

I think all of us had a quick alcohol induced sleep around 3pm on one corner. Quite how I'll never know as over 50 unsilenced sports cars hooned round the track meters away from us. That evening we watched some live music on the stage and enjoyed England being thrashed 2 - 1 by some Italian people in the World Cup. Kick off wasn't until 12 at night and the temperature dropped dramatically leaving only me, Phil and Alex left standing at the end, wrapping the three of us in the foil lined rug I'd brought along.

Recovery beer at Indianapolis
Sunday was a bit of a nightmare logistically. The 6 of us were all struggling with life, as comes after a few days full of beer. Getting on the bus to one of the other corners of the 8 mile track seemed like our best bet. Getting on the bus was fraught with French favoritism that I've witnessed in the Alps before, so, when no one was looking, I popped the rear doors open and Ross and I lept in just before they closed abruptly behind us, shutting everyone else out.

When we got to the Indianapolis corner, Ross and I went in to the ticketed arena next to the track and waited for a while, cold beers in hand, to see if the others had made it on to the next bus. An hour went by and it became apparent that they weren't coming and we spent atleast 30 minutes waiting in bus queues, walking a bit, thumbing with no luck and ending up back in the bus queue for a 45 minute ride around the track's Western perimeter until we got off at the start straight.

Up at the start straight we had a walk around, checking out the jam packed stadium and eating some much needed food. The other chaps decided to stay down near the campsite so after watching the end of the race on a big monitor in the Nissan garage Ross and I made a leisurely stroll back.

After what appeared to have been an absolutely quality weekend we all decided that we'd splash out on a big meal together as a kind of closing ceremony... You know, a quite one.. ready for the drive home in the morning. Well.... I know we went back to Arnage, and I think I had some sort of sea food, but after that I have total and utter blankness except for a raging fire billowing out of our BBQ back at the tents as we burnt all of the remaining fuel.

I woke up the next morning in a dire condition. Packing away my tent so the others could take it back home before I rode the 300 miles South and back to Moto Camping Dordogne. I made it 2 miles out of the campsite before I had to sleep with my head on the kurb of a McDonalds car park for 2 hours, eat two big mac meals and ride for 5 hours cursing that 'quiet night' we'd just had.

Le Mans isn't just for car enthusiasts.... It's not for the faint hearted.... It's for anyone who enjoys having fun... And I'm going to have fun at this place for years to come!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Run to the Sun...

I've been chatting to Renske, the owner of Camping Moto Dordogne, about working on the campsite ever since I mentioned it the last time we were there... back in September of last year.

In the Euro Tunnel
The plan was initially for both myself and Kerry to work out there for the whole season, however, plans were made and when Renske contacted us again in March Kerry was unable to come and I could only manage a couple of months out of the season, but that was not a problem.

I booked my Euro Tunnel ticket through Tesco Clubcard and was all set to leave on Monday. I expected to ride half of the way there, grab some food and a nights kip in my hammock, to then continue the journey and arrive in the Dordogne on Tuesdays. That was until I'd heard some girly friends of mine were at Disneyland and invited me to crash in their hotel.

Notre Dame
The ride in to Paris was very wet. I had to try and get my all in one rain suit on at the side of the road, which isn't exactly easy when it's dry, now I was doing it in a torrential downpour which kindly stopped once I'd ridden another 2 miles. But I made it to Paris fine and had a nice ride about until I reached the road where my friends were staying in their hotel finding a comfy bar to settle in until they got back from Mickey Mousing around.

After a few texts it soon turned out that they wouldn't be back until the evening. I asked the owner of the bar if I could leave my panniers and helmet with him whilst I went for a stroll around Paris... to which he said "It iz not a Bomba non?" in a thick French accent. He put my stuff safely in his bomb proof cupboard and I was free to do as I pleased, walking down along the river to the Notre Dame which I didn't realise had one of these big bridges with millions and bigillions of padlocks all interwoven on it.

Disney Princess's
In front of the massive, yet gradually more boring (as I am finding these religious sites) church of Notre Dame was a more interesting bread exhibition, if you can get your head around the that fact. There were demonstrations on kneading and the different plaits to make different shapes.

Then I thought I'd wile away the time in a few different bars. One particular bar was in the middle of a square and neighboured a Nike running shop that just so happened to be hosting a 10k, women only jog around the French capital. The waiter in the bar came out and sat with me as we were entertained by hundreds of women clad in running gear, stretching and chatting before a guy with a boombox on his back started pumping music. He gave a little speech (in French) and then they were off.

I rescued my bags and the girls finally met me at a small bar near their hotel. We had a few drinks before getting a relatively early night. I got a pretty good kip lying on their floor, enough to snore! (Apparently) In the morning I said my goodbyes and started the long trek down to sunnier climes. This time not getting caught out when the rain came as I wore my suit the whole way. Surprisingly I recognised the way once I'd got to a small town called Gourdon and didn't need to use and satnav.

So what am I doing at Camping Moto Dordogne?? Well, primarily I'm the Handyman but get involved in being Barman/Chief Pool Tester and Underwater Ceramic Detailer (Washer Upper). I've been given a nice little caravan to live in and have my bike to nip out and about on these wonderful roads. The campsite is owned by a Dutch lady, Renske, and mainly attracts Dutch and British motorcyclists looking for a party atmosphere in the middle of spectacular surroundings.

These two are Ollie and Vincent. Ollie is a special type of Water Dog from the Dutch province of Freisland, where Renske comes from. They are trained to be gun dogs and used to retrieve game from wetlands. His coat is very thick and curly with a sort of wax texture so we doesn't get wet in the water. He's a 'Lone wolf' and just pootles about doing his own thing. Vincent on the other hand has been nicknamed 'The Shadow' and he has specifically taken a liking to me, following me around for the entire day until either I or he goes to bed. He loves sticks and I can be busy mowing the lawn or fixing something when I turn around to find he has yet another stick. His mother had a nipple infection and bit his ear off when he was 3 days old because his suckling hurt her. That's why he's called Vincent after the famous van Gogh who severed his own ear off.

A toad I fished out of the pool who then
hopped off happy as larry
My normal daily duties include putting Robbie, a robotic pool cleaner, in for his morning work, fishing out all number of frogs, toads, salamanders, mice and rodents that manage to find their way in to the pool, most dead...some still alive. Then I tend to the grounds, mowing the lawns, strimming the verges and weeding the flower beds. The pool has to be kept at a certain pH level and have a specific chlorine content. Then there is the handyman things with people breaking stuff or new bits to install. Heck, even watering the plants takes me an hour, and can only be done at night once the sun has gone down.

During the afternoons I like to chill by the pool, go for a ride out to any number of local scenic spots or chat with the guests on the terrace. It's been getting really hot recently. Sometimes as hot as 35 degrees C!

The people who turn up are the real attraction. Chatting to one English bloke, Brian, the other day resulted in a lot of lust for the road. He'd been made redundant from his job and his wife had left him when he was 40. He then walked around Europe and Northern Africa for 2 years, working as he went and sustaining himself. He ended up in Israel where conscription was still enforced for every 18 year old, male or female. Anyone in the Israeli army must carry their weapon 24 hours a day, even when off duty. So it wasn't a strange sight to see a young lad shopping in the supermarket with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. Brian had to ask one young lady to "Please move that Uzi so it isn't pointing at my crotch" when he was on a local bus. He said she smiled but didn't move it.

Then of course the bikes. And everything from old 1974 Moto Guzzi's to brand new BMW's and chopped and customised Harleys and cruisers pass through. Some even have trailers and huge tents! The number of people riding with their partner on the back is also quite surprising. Perhaps It's something Kerry and I could do?

But now I'm packing my bike up again with just the essentials as I head North for 300 miles to watch the Le Mans 24 hour race...

Friday, 6 June 2014

Home, Hammock camping and parties...

After a relaxing week in Amsterdam it was time to touch down with reality...

There always seems to be a few administrative things to get done when I'm back in the UK. Whether that's to do with the property I let out, Self assessment tax, vehicle licensing, MOTs, Insurances etc etc, so it always takes a few days and a couple of books of stamps to get it all done. But once it's done I'm happy in the knowledge that we can drive, ride and crash whilst being on the right side of the law.

I say ride because I've got a new motorbike! A lovely Kawasaki Versys 650 with a Givi top box and scott oiler fitted. She's really nice to ride as you sit upright and feel like your 'inside' the bike rather than on top. Kerry gets on great riding pillion, especially as she has the top box behind her.

She came from a friend of my Dad's who only bought her last October to ride through the winter months before taking receipt of a brand new BMW GS1200 last month in March. Over that period he only put 700 miles so I was fairly confident taking her in for an MOT and she passed no problems.

We have some really good friends and it's always a pleasure to meet up. Whether for a good tasting home cooked meal, Jaunt down the pub, or, my favourite, we all meet up for a big buffet style Indian dinner.

Ross wined and dined us one evening with a Jamie Oliver 15 minute meal... quite an impressive Chicken Laksa which is a type of mildly spicy noodle soup with lots of coriander and a nicely marinated piece of grilled chicken. I enjoyed it so much I attempted to cook it over at a different friends house, Claire, but I've got to say that Ross's was better! It's quite nice to not be cooking every day! Even though I have been keeping my culinary skills in check and cooking for my Mum and Dad.

Ross's Chicken Laksa
The van came out of storage ok once I'd charged the battery up. For some reason the solar panel had developed a fault with the controller and stopped charging them, however after a 5 minute reset all was good and it started to pump power in to them. I was a bit concerned for her over the winter. All we heard whilst we were in the Alps was of the torrential rain and howling winds that seemed to last 3 months constant. But the field where she was parked had good drainage and non of the nearby trees came down on her.

It took Kerry and I a whole day to sort all of our stuff out and remove it from the van. We threw a lot away, which is a great achievement seeing as everything we owned fit in to a motorhome! But we've slimmed down even more on stuff we didn't think we'd use again. The hoover came out and the inside cleaned from top to bottom, then I had to fun task of washing the outside of such a big vehicle, climbing on the roof and everywhere. All of this was so that she could go up on ebay and be sold. She's a good van and done us proud through 4000 miles of European roads, even if we did have to stop for a bit whilst she was repaired. Mind you stopping in the South of France isn't exactly a tough job!

Within a couple of days of the ebay listing being active I'd had 3 phone calls, one from a very interested guy who was due to get the train from Cardiff the following weekend. Well... If someone is prepared to get the train to come and view the van, I don't expect they would want to get the train home again! So I was confident that there was a sale in the near future. Nevertheless I had a viewing with pleasant couple from Brighton midweek. They were very interested and offered good money should she pass an MOT that they would pay for.

So we got her booked in for the Thursday and unfortunately she failed... Leaking fuel from the return hose on the injectors. The guy buying it said it shouldn't be much of a problem, but wanted to drive to his house to have a closer look. On the drive back we were chatting and he suddenly said "Aww heck, I don't need to have a look, Let's just go inside and we can transfer the money over now". And with that Mildred was sold. The metal's gone but the memories remain.

So now it was time to earn some money... And it was convenient that my Dad needed some work on his house. Throughout the very wet winter he had water pouring in through every wall. The mortar between the bricks was not up to scratch and the entire house had to be re-pointed. Basically my job was to spend hour after hour grinding the old pug out with a 4 inch grinding disk, then knock up a gauge of new gear ready to be squirted in. Sometimes it was mind numbing work, but after a few weeks we had finished and I was no longer pulling dust out of every orifice.

I also got back from the Alps to a lovely Christmas Present from my Mum. A DD Travel Hammock, a sort of camping hammock that can be used either as a bivi on the ground or strung up in the trees as a hammock.

I chatted with a guest in the French Alps about camping and it transpired that we both watched the same bushcrafting people on youtube... Mike got in contact when he knew I was home and we setup a little excursion to test out my new hammock. Mike is a tree surgeon during the day and so was in the best profession to teach me some useful knots and, having his own camping hammock, was a useful guide when it came to setting up the hammock and sleeping in it for the first time.

To say I had the best nights sleep I've ever had camping would be an understatement. When you get in the hammock it is like getting a big hug from all sides. Lying in the hammock diagonally means you sleep flat instead of the banana shape you expect. We stayed for two nights, cooking on an open fire, whittling sticks in to eating implements (partly because I forget anything to eat with!) and generally catching up, wilderness style. I learnt a lot and I have Mike to thank for that. Hopefully we can get some more nights under the stars this summer.

So my Dads house was now ready just in time to throw a big party. We spent a few days getting the garden and house ready, battling some 70 mph gusts of wind that resulted in one severely broken gazebo and 3 others tied down using every piece of rope available. He brought in 3 barrels of beer from the brewery he is a syndicate member of as well as a fish and chip wagon turning up later in the evening.

It was a brilliant night, meeting some of his old friends for the first time, catching up with his friends I knew, telling stories by the camp fire and finishing up in bed at about 3am! As parties go (and for an old boy) he sure does know how to throw em.

One day to recover from the hangover, then a little 650 mile jaunt down to the Dordogne region of France... To work on that campsite... Yeah... the one with sun, swimming pool and hangovers!
Uncle David, Craig, Dad and Woody enjoying the ales

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Proost! ... (Cheers!)...

And with the stroke of a pen our season was over...

If you can remember the End of our Season last year, it wasn't a fun affair. This coupled with quite a few other reasons really put Kerry and I off of working in any other resorts. However, the decision to hand our notice in this year was primarily mine. I found working the chalet a lot more difficult this time round.

Working seasons was now a job and not so much a pleasure. The snowboarding was still awesome, and something I want to do every single winter until I physically can't, but waiting on people hand and foot nearly 16 hours day was grating a bit on my patience. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I wasn't happy, but I wasn't enjoying myself as much as last year, and Kerry said that it showed in my persona... So we both decided it was best to jack it in and start new adventures.

We worked our notice and ended up leaving just 3 weeks short of the end of the season in Sainte Foy, avoiding the dreaded transfer to another resort. So what would I do with this years season wages? Get constipation in Tenerife? Tempting though it was I decided to meet up with the boys and have a week long excursion in my favourite city... Amsterdam.

Friends of mine, Dane and Alec, and I hatched a drunken plan over Facebook and the day after landing in the UK was meeting Dane in the bar at Gatwick Airport again headed for the most efficient airport, Schiphol. Unfortunately Alec couldn't make it just yet, with a few more days work in the Army before his redundancy started.

I'd bought some blinging new shoes in the day I had spare between getting back from the Alpes and heading off to Amsterdam. This also meant I didn't have time to check them out and 'wear them in' as my mum was always telling me when I was young. That first day in Amsterdam was pure hell on my feet. The shoes fit but were slightly too small. Not by much... In the shop they felt perfectly fine... but with a city break comes a lot of walking and I was now learning that that slightly too small pretty much meant did not fit.

And so after a few visits to the coffee shops we were walking in to a BHS style department store looking for the cheapest shoes they had. The result was a pair of weird plastic topped trainer/loafer that I did not like but fit lovely. I doubt I will wear them ever again once I get home, but for now they were a god send.

Dane took us both out one night to visit his favourite bar, the Gollem bar just South West of the main Dam Square. It was a nice place and we must have spent hours in there, chatting and catching up like good friends do. The variety of beers on offer was also impressive and we slowly made our way through at least half, trying to remember our favourites but forgetting the next night when we popped in for a couple. The cheese board was also good and went very quickly as we thought the bar's cat would eat it all as it prowled around between the taps.

One drunken evening we met up with some dude. I can't remember how we got talking or where we met him, but he came back to our hostel for a few 1 Euro beers before heading in to the bright lights later on. He was a nice English chap from somewhere in the Midlands I think. We shared a few drinks and smokes when suddenly, and through a bit of a slur, he declared it was time to go home (presumably his hostel?). I glanced at the clock and it was nearly 4:30 in the morning. I think we were all a bit worse for wear and Dane and I staggered back to our hostel, happy in the knowledge we'd put on a good drink!

Dane, Kathryn and I
Our next chance meeting was Kathryn who we randomly got talking to in the middle of Dam Square. Can't remember what we spoke about (We are in Amsterdam!) but I have her on my facebook!

It was time for Alec to be set free from the Army, and he made the drive from his Army base in Germany to the northern part of Amsterdam where we wild camped with Mia. Its the perfect place to leave a vehicle when venturing in to the Centre of Amsterdam. So after an elated meeting in a supermarket car park, we set off on the 10 minute walk to the ferry and it felt good. The 3 musketeers were together again!

However, the trio was to be short lived as Dane was to fly home that evening for another flight hours later to Las Vegas on a work exhibition. So we set to work! Beers were drunk, coffeeshops visited and we made the most of the afternoon ending in a nice little farewell dinner.

Alec booked in to the same hostel as Dane and I and after a little difficulty explaining that I was checking out, but checking in as well on another booking, were told that we had the same beds. Alec climbed in to Danes bed that night and remarked that it was a little weird!

The only real touristy things other than Coffeeshops we did was a little torture museum just off the Damrak. If I'm honest it wasn't too great, there was just one room with a few strange apparatus' but mainly pictures of gross ways to kill someone. I'd always recommend the Amsterdam Dungeons for this sort of thing, but the torture museum was a lot cheaper.

 It was really nice to see my friends again after a long time apart for one reason or another.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Soooo much Snoooow....

We've had a few friends come and visit us...

Coming out to a mountain is different, it's why I do it, (that and a small thing called snowboarding!) But every once in a while it's nice to have some familiarity, and what better way than with friends?!

Ben and Lindsay were just guests last year... People who arrive on a Sunday and we look after... until the following Sunday... Holiday makers, you've probably been one? But Ben, Lindsay and a few of the other guests on that week turned in to friends. When you finish the night pilled up like a Jenga set on the dining room table, you know you've made a bond!

Ben, Chris, Me and Laura
And when I say friends I mean Facebook friends! Oh yes, that epitomy of stalker tools that let's you follow every single geographical movement, which, along with this blog, Ben followed us rambling around Europe through the summer season. He also picked up straight away when we posted that we would be returning to the chalet we ran last year and sent us a message giddy with excitement.

Kerry and I had hoped that Ben and Lindsay would return... A good set of guest means a good week in a chalet, not only for the guests themselves but for us, their hosts. So we too got excited about their return.

We were all doing the snow dance and man did it pay off! The beginning of the season was a little patchy on snow. Still ride able, just not what we were used to from last season. We had buckets of snow the week before Ben arrived and the week was made up on riding some very fresh powder on one of the emptiest weeks of the season.

Our manager and maintenance guy came over from Tignes one day and we blasted round the mountain finding all the best bits until early afternoon when Ben and I gave them an initiation to Crystal Dark, an off piste, yet piste poled run, on the far right hand side of resort. It was so lush, it seemed that hardly anyone had been down it and I don't think we saw a single soul in the 4 or 5 runs we did consecutively...

A small ridge type jump had been created, presumably by the wind, but possibly just following a contour of the land underneath. It turned out to be a nice, if a bit of a steep, jump and we all had fun hitting it as fast as we dared. I even managed to pull off a front flip/roll much to the surprise of my manager as you can hear...

Crystal Dark was re-named Crystal Meth... Once you've done it once it's sooo addictive, especially in these ideal conditions. I posted what was meant to be comical comment about loving Crystal Meth which backfired as I received worried and concerned comments and even an email from my Dad who doesn't have Facebook! Don't tell porkies about doing drugs kids! There's too many people that love you!

A few days later and a bit of chaos came to town. Ben and I were out, first run of the day, head to the top and cruise down the piste to a little off pistey bit ... Normal routine really. I shoot down the piste and sit on the top of a little hip ready to make the decent in to the powdery stuff. Turn around and Ben's had a little spill. Normal routine really! (We are boarders!) Little falls etc are common place with boarding, if your not falling your not trying... So I turn back to the mountain to plan our route down, after 10 seconds or so turn back to see if Ben is ready to set off.

He's still on the floor. Not normal routine. Normally you bounce back up, ride down and make up some excuse like you were trying a 'Backside Double McTwist off of that little lip man'. Ben finally gets up and gingerly makes his way down to me, clutching at his arm. Apologies are flying by this time and I assure Ben there's no need to be sorry, are you hurt?

      "I think I've done something to my shoulder, just have a quick feel see if it feels wrong compared to my other one"

So I'm stood there in the middle of the piste giving what either looks like a very hands on prep talk to my friend, or an impromptu massage. One things for sure, Ben's shoulder is not right!

Even through his ski jacket I can feel that his right shoulder has an egg shaped and sized 'lump' coming out of it. That's not right. Ben is confident he can make it down the mountain so we both make a slow but steady decent, mainly on our heel edges, until the top of the first lift where we unstrap and ride the chair lift down. In the mean time Lindsay and her sister are still having their snowboard lesson so Ben and I settle down on the sofa to research exactly what could be this protrusion sticking out of his shoulder.

An AC seperation is the most likely cause, basically where a big bit that is meant to be held down, is sticking up. I'm a doctor in the making! I know it's serious when Ben asks me to sit on the other sofa so he can lie down as he feels sick. Lindsay came back around lunch time and she packed a bag to go down to the hospital in Bourg with Ben.

A day later and only hours after having an operation to get some wire work done in his shoulder and Ben is signing himself out of hospital to come back to the chalet... Our cooking must be good! I was gutted for Ben. He'd looked forward to coming back out to the alps for so long and we'd chatted about it online for weeks before. Now he was unable to board for the last 2 days. But I guess that's the risk with 'Xtreme' sports.

I just don't know how, over 2 seasons, I haven't hurt anything yet?!

Sainte Foy - Top to Bottom Challenge 2014

I'm not competitive, until I think I may actually be able to win!...

We'd eaten all of the powder in Sainte Foy, a resort renowned for it's off piste. Unfortunately the lack of snow fall coupled with the sheer number (comparatively speaking as there is normally only 20 people on the slopes!) took it's toll on the fresh stuff.

We ventured a little further afield as well, chomping some lovely fresh lines down the Col de Granier. It was pretty handy really. Our guests were split quite nicely in ski/board ability allowing Kerry and I to go and do some more adventurous stuff with the better boarders, but their friends and partners were able to ski together and have a good time as well.

One evening over dinner it was decided... There was no more off piste powder runs out there so to spruce up the last days riding with some really awesome guests, a race was discussed.

And so was the birth of the Sainte Foy - Top to Bottom challenge. A no holes barred, gumball rally of a race, in no way official riding at high speed on live pistes to see which of the contenders was the fasted snowboarder.

There were only a few rules;

#1 - No off piste. No cutting corners, secret couloirs or tree runs, only between those piste poles

#2 - Any route. Any combination of pisted runs could be used to get from the Col de l'Aiguille 2620m to the finish line in front of the Maison a Colonnes in resort 1550m

And that's about it... Just get from the top to the bottom!

Headed towards the Col de Granier
3 riders were up for the challenge... myself included. And I instantly started to regret that decision. I ride with guests... a lot. Kerry and I ride with nearly every single guest who stay at our chalet, and almost every day of the week. And the last time a race was proposed, last season, I spectacularly wiped out a skiing guest who didn't take too lightly to getting intimate with me at 30mph!

The other contenders were awesome boarders as well, but named Steve, and both out to show this 'young buck' just what boarding is...

We went through a brief 'course initiation'. We were limited by our route because the local ski club had shut the l'Arpettaz piste (8) forcing us all on to the red to the right of the map, Creux de Formeian (4). Both Steves also took a slightly longer route down, making a win very easy for me! But my conscience got the better of me and I showed then the shorter route.

Sainte Foy piste map
Then the moment everyone had been waiting for.... Myself and the two Steves got on the lift at the bottom as the rest of the inhabitants from the chalet took up their positions on the sun terrace on the finish line. Kerry and another guest were to be positioned mid way up resort where they could see most of the action and relay the details, commentary style, down to the finish using 2 way radios.

Steve, Steve and I all agreed that we had hyped up this race waaaay too much. It took 30 minutes for us to ride the 3 lifts to the top, sipping drams of whiskey to calm our nerves or bolster our bravado, depending on the rider.

At the top we strapped in and waited for our signal to go, being given by Kerry on the radio... However then disaster struck, we had just dipped over the other side of the mountain and could no longer hear anyone on the tiny radio. We later found out that our friends at the finish could hear everything we were saying, but we heard nothing. A phone call came from Steve's mate from the same position as Kerry and a count down was started... 20 seconds.

As I counted down Steve rushed to put his phone back in his pocket, gloves on and prepare for the start. Then, finally, the moment of truth as we set off down the hill.

Cattle Bell trophies
We were quick, very quick, and I winced at the thought of catching an edge at these speeds. I made the first break for freedom straight off the bat. And now all I needed to do was hold on for dear life and keep it that way, with the two Steve's behind me.

All was dandy and I was loving it, wooping and cheering as I hit a big dip at high speed, forcing my legs up against the compression, but it all came unstuck as I crested the next hill and slid out, then caught my heal edge trying to get back up and clouting my head in to the floor.

I had a quick sitrep moment as I checked whether I'd actually hurt myself or broken anything. I'd crashed at the fastest point of the run so far, later finding out I was going 57mph! Luckily nothing but my lead in the race had taken a battering as I glanced up from the floor to find Steve, who was previously in 3rd, shooting past me laughing his head off! As I spun round on my stomach trying to get the board under me before taking chase I noticed the other Steve was floundering around on the floor just like me! 2 of us crashing out allowing last place to become 1st!

Now we were on. I was sat in 2nd place after composing myself and pointing the board straight down the hill. I could see Steve in 1st way out in front and could hear the other Steve close behind me, edges shooshing on the hard icey piste. Then my chance, Steve in front slipped, only slightly, but enough to put him on his arse, and enough for me to take the tighter line past him, rubbing it in with woops and cheers!

All I had to do now was hold on to the lead again. We'd just passed the point Kerry should have been at spectating, but I couldn't take my eyes off the piste in front of me to look. The trouble with going fast on a snowboard is that the fasted way is to point the board straight down the hill, but that position also means it's harder to maintain an edge, and very easy to catch an edge, at high speed. It's a catch 22 type thing.

The next section was fairly shaded by the trees on either side, that shade meant more ice, proper ice, icey ice! I was really quick here, taking advantage and pushing out further. A few people on the piste must have had a shock as I crested a hill and tore through the group followed by Steve and Steve chasing!

The last part of the course is slightly slower, a bit warmer and a lot slushier, not ideal for speed but an even playing field. I chanced a look back and took great delight in not seeing the Steve's, I was nearly home and dry and gunned it as fast as I could getting air off of little piles of snow on the piste until a particularly tricky (for me at least) section where I would normally cut off the corner. However, rule number 1 of Top to Bottom challenge #1 - No off piste, so I had to put in a big turn to scrape the speed off and correct my course, dipping to the left of the piste poles instead of heading off in to the wilderness.

Steve, me and Steve receiving our Cattle Bell trophies
I came screaming round the last corner, hands raised in jubilation, I'd won, It had taken me 4 minutes 20 seconds to do it, but I'd done it. Steve and Steve weren't far behind though, I'm glad I didn't fall again after that first one!

Later that night we had a 'Prize giving ceremony' for the trophies for the first Sainte Foy Top to Bottom Challenge. The others told us that everyone on the sun terrace were huddled around the radio listening as Kerry and Mark gave some amazing Murray Walker like commentary like "There's 3 of them coming down!" and "Someones in first but we don't know who!"

It was an amazing day, captured on some sketchy placed gopro's, check out the video below

I'm looking forward to the 2015 Sainte Foy Top to Bottom Challenge.... Will I be racing you?